26.3.11

John Byrne & The Hulk That Might Have Been (4)

It's getting ridiculous, right? Not to worry, this truly is the final segment of my analysis of John Byrne's plans for The Incredible Hulk--the fourth of a planned trio of articles! (That wasn't a misprint.) This time out, I want to go further with Byrne's plans for his revamped Hulk as well as explain reasons possible and definite for his premature exit from the title. Again, I'll quote as needed from magazines like Amazing Heroes, Comics Feature, Comics Interview and Marvel Age. Enjoy!
As mentioned previously, Byrne intended to kill the original Hulk who'd been separated from Banner, and then turn around and transform Banner into a new Hulk who would hearken back to the original Hulk of the first six issues by Lee, Kirby and Ditko. According to Comics Feature, the purpose of his own first half-dozen-odd issues--everything that saw print, plus a few unpublished stories--was to "get [Hulk] back to a point where I can say the last 100 issues didn't happen." He'd hit "a point that [would] essentially be issue seven of [the original six-issue] run. Then [we'd] go from there." He was also quick to point out that while he would be taking the Hulk "back to basics," he would remain green. Drastic plans? You bet. Necessary? Who can say?

Now, in my last entry I mentioned that I didn't think that Bruce Banner's "New Hulk" would figure into the death of the original one. Allow me to explain my logic with more information from Comics Feature. "One of the elements we're going to be getting into," said Byrne, "is that the world is going to come to believe that Hulk is dead. So Hulk is going to be functioning as kind of a secret identity for Banner. We're going to get back to the 'creature of the night' that he was in the first few issues, because you can't have Hulk as a secret identity if he's running around at high noon. He's going to be lurking in shadows." He didn't seem to specifically be making references to nighttime as catalyst for the change; rather, he obviously intended to use the original Hulk's death to "put the genie back in the bottle," so to speak, and make everyone, for the time being, unaware that Banner and the Hulk were again sharing one body. He couldn't very well do that while having one Hulk kill the other! How long he could keep the illusion going is anyone's guess--if you'll remember, the Hulk only kept a "secret identity" for a few years (1962-1966, until "unmasked" in Tales To Astonish #77). Could it really have worked? I have trouble believing it, but Byrne does make a good point about again making the Hulk a "creature of the night" to mask Banner's involvement.

Unfortunately, without the death of the old Hulk being the impetus for the birth of the new one, that leaves me without a reasonable hypothesis for why Banner decides to make himself into a new creature. Although Byrne made it clear that he would transform into a new Hulk before the old one passed, the reasoning yet escapes me. Can anyone shed some light on this? I know, I gave an idea that Banner's scientific curiosity about applying what he had learned during his years as the Hulk back to himself, a kind of "if I knew then what I knew now" bit, and that works okay. But I was hoping for something a little more in the vein of Bruce's original sacrifice to save Rick Jones a la Incredible Hulk #1.

At the very least, from the way he was acting in the issues that were released, I'm moderately certain that Byrne had planned for Doc Samson to die in his obsessive quest to kill the Hulk--perhaps even killing the Hulk at the cost of his own life upon discovering, as we did in Marvel Fanfare #29, that the Hulk wasn't truly mindless after all. Again, who can say? Just a feeling I have, but I also feel that it would have been more difficult keeping the Hulk's continued existence a secret with Samson still hanging around. Maybe it's me.

Also, in my last article I made mention of both the "creature of the night" Hulk and a Hulk with a measure of Banner's intellect. Again, Byrne clarified in Comics Feature: "Hulk's intelligence is going to come and go...You're going to have a nasty Bruce Banner who fluctuates towards being a virtual mindless brute occasionally. The situation is essentially, Banner is in control of Hulk as long as he lets Hulk out periodically. If he doesn't let Hulk out occasionally, there will come times when the Hulk breaks out. In the former situation he's in control, in the latter he's not." With regard to the transformation pattern, "While we're setting this up he doesn't realize that he needs to let Hulk out. By the time he realizes that it's a necessity. Hopefully, I'll have figured out how to get around that," he said, cautioning "that's not coming around for about two years anyway." He hoped to end up with a Hulk who was "about 60% hero and 40% bad guy. He does good things, not always necessarily for the right reasons, and sometimes he does out and out bad things."


What else would come of the new status quo? Byrne wanted to introduce "The General," in his words "an automated tank, which is the first foe of the new Hulk," as well as bring back one of the Hulk's first foes, the Metal Master (first seen in Incredible Hulk #6, but most recently seen in Rom #30). "When everything looks as if it's finally settled down and everything's happy, we cut to a warehouse in New York, where we find the adamantium statue of the Hulk [that Alicia Masters created as tribute to the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk #279]...where it's been gathering dust all these months [since the Hulk picked it up and chucked it at Thor in #300]. And slowly it stirs, steps off its pedestal, and crashes off into the street." Adamantium is metal, of course, and since the Metal Master controls metal, well, you can see where this is heading, right? Breaking out of my stoic comic historian persona for a moment, I just have to say: that idea is really cool and I really regret we didn't get to see it. (That said, a "New Hulk" vs. "Adamantium Hulk" battle also eliminates most remaining doubt as to whether Banner's "New Hulk" would be involved in killing the old one, as it was highly unlikely Byrne was planning back-to-back "Hulk vs. Hulk" battles.)

Byrne hinted at other less-realized events, including the return of the Abomination. "[He] intrigues me, and I am, bringing the Abomination back, but it won't be the same Abomination. He'll look the same, but it won't be Emil Blonsky. In fact, I'm going to have my Legion of Abominations, which should confuse everybody." Plus, in Comics Interview he expressed interest in returning another of the Hulk's earliest foes, the Ringmaster, wanting to get back to the "incredibly scary" aspects of the character from that first story in Incredible Hulk #3, where the villain would "[put] entire towns into hypnosis-induced comas." In Marvel Age #31, he also voiced intent to write a Hulk/Fantastic Four crossover, as at that point he never thought he'd leave the latter book.

Interestingly, although Byrne admits not particularly enjoying everything that wasn't an invention of Lee and Kirby, he did drop hints (again, in Comics Feature) that he would be bringing in some elements from the popular 1970s live-action TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. "I'm thinking of possibly tossing in a reporter who's trying to track down these things that could only be caused by the Hulk. He won't be trying to prove there's a Hulk, but will be saying that things are clearly not what they appear to be. This is the guy who answers the questions when someone picks up their first issue and goes, 'What's going on here?' This guy's going to ask the same questions." While it's possible Byrne was in fact grooming a she, Dianne Bellamy (the reporter who followed Samson) for this role, there's really no conclusion to be made. Still, it might have been interesting having a Jack McGee-like character in the mythos.

Before any more inroads could be made to Byrne's new status quo, he left, or some argue was driven off the book. I've heard the story that during a cab ride he pitched one hell of a story to then-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who told him to go ahead, take the book and put his plan in action. Then, soon after he started doing the book, Shooter changed his mind and told him he couldn't do what they agreed upon. That's Byrne's side of the story. I'm sure Shooter's side of the story involves Byrne making significant changes from the initially agreed-on premise, with that change of plans directly leading to the creator's exit. (I'm not going to assign any kind of devious blame, but based upon what I've outlined above, the "death" of one Hulk and Banner's changing into Byrne's turn-back-the-clock-to-issue-seven Hulk might have been quite the sticking point. Whereas "death" in comics today is relatively common, in the mid-eighties it just wasn't so. It's also interesting that the plan was to literally kill one version of the character and magically replace him with the version Byrne wanted to write. Although more drastic measures have been taken with characters in the nineties--Clone Saga anyone?--again, such measures were really unheard-of in the eighties.)


It's interesting that Byrne's presumed stated goal--to kill the Hulk (regardless of how he was replacing him)--is so similar to the turn of events that led to the published ending of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" in Uncanny X-Men #137. As told in Phoenix: The Untold Story, Claremont and Byrne's originally stated ending was to keep Jean Grey alive but leave her powerless. However, when Shooter saw that Dark Phoenix had committed genocide in an earlier issue, he voiced objections at the light punishment, resulting in a new ending with Grey committing suicide in a moment of lucidity. Compare the death of Dark Phoenix with Byrne's Hulk having become a mass murderer (with reporter Dianne Bellamy explaining in #316 that "Loss of life [in Stoneridge] may yet mount into the hundreds") and it seems Byrne may have been counting on Shooter to agree with him that this Hulk needed to be killed--we'll call it "The Dark Phoenix Syndrome." Perhaps Shooter didn't want history repeating itself, especially in light of Jean Grey's return in Fantastic Four #286 at nearly the same time as all these Hulkish goings-on, and that's why he pulled the plug. You've got to admit, the timing is all a bit hinky.

Whatever the case, the next writer/artist, Al Milgrom, inherited the thankless task of picking up the status quo from where Byrne hastily left it, and would be on the book for ten issues (with a fill-in writer for #328) before Peter David assumed control of a book it's said nobody else wanted with #331. And the rest, as they say, is history. I sometimes wonder whether the specter hanging over the book--the fact nobody wanted to work on it which led "the direct sales guy" David to be tasked--had more to do with some animosity in the comics community over Shooter having fired Byrne than any actual disinterest in the Hulk character. We'll never know.

Regardless of other creators' reticence to work on Incredible Hulk following Byrne's exit, you can't deny that his short stint paved the way for virtually all that would occur over the coming years. When Al Milgrom came aboard, he immediately introduced elements that made it necessary for Banner and the Hulk to re-merge, making both sick the longer they remained apart. The only major rampage of the mindless Hulk that Milgrom wrote (#321-322) resulted in no loss of life. When they re-merged, the Hulk gained substantial intelligence, becoming closer to his original self than in many years. Then, re-exposure to the nutrient bath combined with Rick Jones' having been simultaneously dropped in the tank led to strange inversions of Byrne's concepts: the return of a crafty, grey-skinned Hulk (#324) who would be subject of the book for four years into David's tenure; and the introduction of Rick Jones as a second, green-skinned, long-haired, slow-witted "New Hulk" to effectively take the place of the recently-departed savage version (#325).

The new Hulkbusters would continue to be a staple of the book for some time, until Samuel J. LaRoquette and Craig Saunders were recruited by the Leader to serve as his Rock and Redeemer, respectively, during the "Ground Zero" storyline (#340-346). David addressed and resolved Betty's tryst with Ramón, her lover during the Hulk's exile from Earth, within a few issues (#334), at the same time exploring some of what Byrne discussed regarding Banner's emotions all sublimating the Hulk's rage. The longest direct result of these six issues was the wedding of Bruce and Betty, which is a plot element to this day, through her issues with the merged Hulk, her death by the Abomination, subsequent resurrection by the Leader, and development as Red She-Hulk.


However, more important than virtually all the rest of my points about Byrne's intended direction is his vision of the Hulk himself. If Byrne had his way, we would never have seen a returned grey-skinned Hulk. We'd have instead gotten a green-skinned version of same, akin to many of the early issues. (Though Byrne showed that the Hulk had indeed been grey-skinned upon his birth, according to Amazing Heroes he would have kept him green--returning to grey skin is at this time entirely attributed to Milgrom.) Byrne's visage of the Hulk raises an interesting question: with a Hulk only distinguishable from the classic savage version via demeanor and physical appearance, not color, would the future of the character have been drastically changed? Simply put, did Milgrom's turning the Hulk ash-grey as in his original appearance predispose Peter David to offer Multiple Personality Disorder/Dissociative Identity Disorder as an explanation for the character's origins and varying appearance? I find it difficult to believe any suggestion of multiple incarnations and personalities would have gained traction if the Hulk hadn't changed color during the Milgrom period. (It's easier to suggest that different colored Hulks equal different personalities.) It's possible an entirely different version of events would have unfolded if Byrne had been able to continue his schemes. Can you imagine never involving MPD/DID in the Hulk legend? Never having a "merged" incarnation? Never having the Hulk wear anything but purple boy shorts? Think about it a moment and let it boggle your mind.

In the final analysis, John Byrne's Incredible Hulk is a series to be appreciated less for what he did to advance existing plotlines and more for what he set in motion for future writers to pay off. As above, although it's taken writers like Milgrom and David to do so, the ideas Byrne provided set up conflicts and developments to advance throughout years. He might well be a visionary in the truest sense, or as seen here, he may only be a visionary for what he suggested and other writers carried through. It's difficult to tell as we never saw him reap what he had sown. Is it better or worse for Byrne to not have achieved his original intents on Incredible Hulk? I'll leave it to you to decide.

(Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Postscript)

~G.

Bibliography
  • Byrne, John. "Re: JBF Reading Club: The Incredible Hulk #314." Online posting. 1 May 2008. Byrne Robotics - The John Byrne Forum. 24 Mar 2011 <http://www.byrnerobotics.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=25324&KW=incredible+hulk&PN=0&TPN=2>
  • Byrne, John. Hulk Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 1. New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008.
  • Salicrup, Jim. "John Byrne." Comics Interview 25 (1985): 85, 103. Print.
  • Sanderson, Peter. "The Big Switch." Amazing Heroes 76 (1985): 26-35. Print.
  • Schuster, Hal. "Talk With John Byrne." Comics Feature 37 (1985): 55-58. Print.
  • Zimmerman, Dwight Jon. "The Marvel Age Interview: John Byrne." Marvel Age 31 (1985): 10-12. Print.

13 comments:

  1. Good article,Gary. John Byrne is a great writer and artist but I disagree with his ideas on the Hulk. It seems he wanted to use his back the original Lee/Kirby approach that he did with the Fantastic Four. While his reasoning made sense for that book it really does not for the first six issues of the Hulk. The original Lee/Kirby issues had trouble with making the Hulk a interesting character. It was not until Ditko's issues that we got a concept that was working. Even then it was awhile until any really good stories were done.His comments on Len Wein and his dislike for the savage hulk are odd. Wein was probably one of the best writers the series had. It seems in general there was a dislike for that version of the Hulk then. What are your thoughts?

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  2. This was a very nice series. Byrne's run is something of a curiosity to me. I loved Mantlo's run but he had become stale near the end of his tenure, and Byrne's arrival was like a breath of fresh air. I don't think any of the issues he did are necessarily classics, and having re-read them a few years ago I don't think they've stood the test of time all that well.

    But I like a lot of the ideas set forth here as to where he was eventually headed. The notion of separating Banner from Hulk was always IMO a little goofy, but I love the idea of a "back to basics" approach with the Hulk in the shadows. Very interesting to see how the elements of Hulk subconsciously influencing Banner eventually made their way into subsequent runs as well.

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  3. Well done, Gary. Bravo! I appreciate what you've done here, and it's added both enjoyment and insight to my comics reading experience. An experience, I must admit, would probably be drastically different - if not nonexistent - had John Byrne stayed on the book. For all the respect he is due as a writer, it is the Hulk and his evolution through the Mantlo and David years that made me into the comics fan I am today. If not for the deep love I developed for the character during these stories, I may never have grown into such a big comics addict. Byrne following through with his plan may have ruined all of that, although we'll never know. I may not read your DC posts, my friend, but you really kept me glued with this one!

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  4. Gary, this is a great series of articles. This is a subject I myself have thought of since the 80's. Question: Regarding the changed issue numbers that Byrne had annouced storylines that he didn't get to, did you find anything about how Byrne's storytelling choices might have provoked ire on Jim Shooter's part? Aside from the Chaptered 314, there was the alternating aspect of 318, which was really 2 unrelated stories alternating on the top and bottom of each page. Finally, the all splash page issue that Shooter didn't allow to published as 320. Shooter had and has a reputation for conventional storytelling which these examples flaunt a real disregard for. Is there anything you may have read that sheds light on Byrne's peculiar storytelling choices?

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  5. Brian, thanks for reading! I never really considered the storytelling style as being the culprit that led to Byrne's dismissal from the title. Considering that Walt Simonson had an all-splash issue of THOR (#380) just over a year later, still under Shooter's tenure, I'm not sure how much credence I can give to the theory. Every article I've read and every comment from Mr. Byrne seems to suggest it was the stories themselves, and not the method he used to tell them, that led to Shooter taking him off the book. However interesting it seems that the "3 chapter" structure was the very first casualty (in his 2nd issue), I don't think it's a symptom of later problems.

    ~G.

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  6. Gary, if you remember I wrote a article about the Old Power awhile back. I said it may be more than coincidence that the Hulk landed on Skaar. Read the last paragraph of this link and notice the aliens in the last few preview pages.

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=preview&id=8129

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  7. Great series! I have often dismissed Byrnes run as a failure, but after you've shown the ideas and plotlines established that future writers built on I have to reevaluate Byrnes Hulk.

    That being said, do you have any insights on Byrnes second, just as short, run on Hulk in 1999-2000 which was hyped to the extent that Marvel decided to re-number and re-name the Hulk title, but then just seemed to fizzle?

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  8. Christian, thanks for reading! As far as the later Byrne run, I've heard a few things. I know it was designed as a showcase for the savage Hulk, which is what Marvel wanted in the wake of Peter David's departure (in fact, it's why David walked from the book). It was originally supposed to start with issue #475 according to some Marvel promotional material, but at some point relaunching/renumbering became de rigueur at The House of Ideas, and we got a new #1.

    As far as I know, there was no plan to return to Byrne's earlier ideas, although certainly there's the germ of the idea there (with the Moloid-turned-Hulk who destroyed the airplane in #4). When the editorial team turned over (Matt Idelson out, Tom Brevoort in) Byrne was cut out of the puzzle almost immediately, and first Erik Larsen (#8) then Jerry Ordway (#9-11...coincidentally Byrne's finisher in the later FF issues) came in to conclude the arc. I know Byrne really refuses to discuss this period on his message board, which is really something because he's even discussed the earlier parting with Jim Shooter.

    I could guess the storytelling style had something to do with the decision, as issues #1-5 essentially were all different POVs of the same action with some advancing of the plot here and there. The sales figures started out just under 78K but plummeted month after month, hitting a low of 44K with #7, not seeing a turnaround until the Wolverine guest appearance in #8 (plotted by Byrne, scripted by Larsen), and not really stabilizing until the book was retitled "Incredible" and Paul Jenkins took over (granted, that floor was in the upper 30Ks).

    ~G.

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  9. Gary, do you have a source that Byrne plotted Hulk #8? The comments Larsen made that I have read seemed to indicate that he was plotting. I'm pretty sure I remember him stating that he came up with Wolverine Blinding the Hulk, because without a handicap, he couldn't imagine a fight between a non-adamantium Wolverine and a savage Hulk being able to last an issue. I have wondered about this because Larsen uses the Tyrannus subplot and points out that Tyrannus doesn't know who built the subterranian devices he uses to control the Hulk and siphon his power. 12 years later and we still don't know.

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  10. Eep! I could have sworn I remembered a plot credit of some sort in Hulk #8 and believed more than a bit of the issue had been worked on previous to Byrne being let go...I guess either I'm wrong or the source has been lost. (Let's put it this way: if Byrne ever did have any plot involvement, it's been so overwritten by Larsen as to render any credit meaningless.) Either way, mea culpa.

    Good point about Tyrannus being unaware of who built the devices he used to enslave the Hulk!

    On the topic of credit, remind me to dig some things up on the Hulk creative team that never was: Todd Dezago and Mike Wieringo!

    ~G.

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  11. Gary,in what issue did Tyrannus say he did not know who made the technology? Most of the technology that he has was originally developed by the Deviant race. This has been said in a few different issues. What reason did Tyrranus have to believe that this technology also was not made by them?

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  12. Gary, as always superb work - beautifully researched!

    Just stumbled upon a curious tie-in to this era that I had forgotten about for 25 years: I direct you to Secret Wars II #8, which fits in around Hulk # 318, where the Beyonder meets up with the post-nutrient bath mindless Hulk - except he has the Savage Hulk speech! Obviously a no-prize worthy screw-up, but still a canonical Hulk appearance from the Byrne era! Even drawn by Al Milgrom! What to do, what to do...

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  13. There is no reason that the SWII appearance could not occur after the Marvel Fanfare issue. After meeting the Beyonder, the Hulk gets so mad again that he once more reverts to his previous state. Indeed, the Hulk is silent in the following SWII issue.

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